Joe Nocera Is Still Wrong and “Very Unfair” About the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline. McKibben, Hansen and I Explain Why.

We must leave the overwhelming majority of unconventional fossil fuels in the ground to avoid catastrophic warming, but Nocera wants to open every spigot

CO2 emissions by fossil fuels [1 ppm CO2 ~ 2.12 GtC, where ppm is parts per million of CO2 in air and GtC is gigatons of carbon] via Hansen. Significantly exceeding 450 ppm risks several severe and irreversible warming impacts.  Hitting 800 to 1,000+ ppm — which is our current emissions path and the inevitable outcome of aggressively exploiting unconventional fuels like the tar sands as Nocera advocates — represents the near-certain destruction of modern civilization as we know it as the recent scientific literature makes chillingly clear. [Estimated reserves and potentially recoverable resources are from EIA (2011) and GAC (2011).]

NY Times business columnist Joe Nocera responded to my post “Joe Nocera Joins the Climate Ignorati.”  He also interviewed Bill McKibben for his new column, “The Politics of Keystone, Take 2.”

But he is still very wrong, and he didn’t represent McKibben’s position well at all.  Nocera’s new arguments are more elaborate. Since you see them a lot from centrist economist types, I will respond  in some detail —  with the help of McKibben, who explains here what he was trying to explain to Nocera and why Nocera’s final paragraph is “very unfair.”

I’ll also show that Nocera holds the environmental costs of the pipeline up to a considerably different standard of analysis than he does his hand-waving assertions of the supposedly vastly larger non-environmental benefits of Keystone.  A leading expert on life-cycle greenhouse gas analyses of the tar sands responds to Nocera’s lowball estimate.

Nocera goes astray almost immediately:

Here’s the question on the table today: Can a person support the Keystone XL oil pipeline and still believe that global warming poses a serious threat?

To my mind, the answer is yes.

I know what you’re thinking.  Since when does Nocera “believe that global warming poses a serious threat”?

If Nocera really believes global warming poses a serious threat, you’d think he’d write about it regularly.  But his first Keystone article never mentioned warming and dismissed all environmental concerns.  Nocera wrote a long piece on the Chevy Volt last year and never mentioned warming or CO2 at all.

If you google his name and “global warming,” you’ll find 2008’s “At Exxon’s Can’t-Miss Meeting,” in which he touts the widely debunked nonsense peddled by physicist Freeman Dyson and dismisses knowledgeable people who express science-based views as trying to “push Exxon Mobil toward their belief systemtheir global warming religion.”

Needless to say, folks who “believe that global warming poses a serious threat” do not generally use the phrase “global warming religion.”  That was a key reason I called him a member of the climate ignorati.  The science says that global warming is an existential threat (see Lonnie Thompson on why climatologists are speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization” and literature review here).

Heck, the International Energy Agency, a staid and conservative group of economists and the like where Nocera should feel at home, says the world is on pace for 11°F warming and “Even School Children Know This Will Have Catastrophic Implications for All of Us”

So Nocera lacks any “street cred” to either pose or answer the “question on the table today,” as he has never shown any indication that he believes global warming poses a serious threat — and indeed he has written in the past as if he does not.  In his first Keystone piece last week he wrote:

Along with the natural gas that can now be extracted thanks to hydraulic fracturing — which, of course, all right-thinking environmentalists also oppose — the oil from the Canadian tar sands ought to be viewed as a great gift that has been handed to North America.  These two relatively new sources of fossil fuels offer America its first real chance in decades to become, if not energy self-sufficient, at least energy secure, no longer beholden to OPEC.

Now that doesn’t sound much like a climate realist.  Apparently Nocera wants us to think he is concerned about the global warming threat while simultaneously embracing full exploitation of unconventional oil and gas.  The analysis by James Hansen (and others) — previewed here and summarized in the chart at the top — makes clear that those two views are in fact incompatible.  [See also Bombshell Study: High Methane Emissions Measured Over Gas Field “May Offset Climate Benefits of Natural Gas.]

That’s a key reason why all the folks best known for worrying about the threat posed by global warming oppose the pipeline.

Let’s dive into the piece itself.

Nocera’s piece continues:

The crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, which the pipeline would transport to American refineries on the Gulf Coast, simply will not bring about global warming apocalypse. The seemingly inexorable rise in greenhouse gas emissions is the result of deeply ingrained human habits, which will not change if the pipeline is ultimately blocked. The benefits of the oil we stand to get from Canada, via Keystone, far outweigh the environmental risks.

Talk about moving the goal posts and misstating the problem and handwaving.  First off, no individual pool of carbon can “bring about global warming apocalypse” by itself.  But in combination with  the conventional coal, oil, and gas we are burning unconstrained — a policy Nocera appears to endorse wholeheartedly — then, yes, the tar sands will be a clear contributor to impacts that deserve the label apocalyptic.  Nocera would know that if he bothered to talk to real climate scientists like Hansen.

Blocking the tar sands isn’t about changing “human habits” — it’s about blocking access to a vast pool of carbon that needs to be left in the ground.  Obviously if  you frame all efforts to  stop catastrophic climate change as attempting to change “deeply ingrained human habits” then you can  hand wave all action away.

And speaking of  handwaving, Nocera  never actually quantifies the supposed “benefits of the oil we stand to get from Canada.”  That’s probably because such quantification is difficult if not impossible, since those benefits are minimal.

In fact, Nocera simply asserts that tar sands oil and shale gas gives us a chance to become “no longer beholden to OPEC.” But that may be the sloppiest statement Nocera has written on this subject.  He knows  that the price of oil is set on an international market.  The Keystone XL pipeline would carry up to 900,000 barrels of oil a day.  That’s a little over 1% of global supply (and 4% of U.S. supply, assuming we got it all, which we won’t) —  it will have no significant impact on the price of oil or OPEC’s ability to control price (neither will shale gas).  Now, if Nocera is really proposing a vast expansion of tar sands oil significant enough to be even, say, 10% of global oil supply, well, then  that would be precisely what opponents of the pipeline have been arguing — that it opens the door to levels of tar sands  exploitation that would in fact  make a major contributor to climate catastrophe.

Nocera continues:

When I tried to make that case on Tuesday, however, I was cast as a global warming “denier.” Joe Romm, who edits the Climate Progress blog, said that I had joined “the climate ignorati.” Robert Redford — yes, that Robert Redford — denounced my column in The Huffington Post. “Let’s put the rhetoric aside, and simply focus on the facts,” he wrote.

NOTE TO NOCERA: Calling you part of the climate ignorati does not mean I am casting you as a “global warming ‘denier’.” I reserve that term for people who spread long-debunked disinformation knowingly and/or as part of the broader anti-science disinformation campaign.  The ignorati are, as Google quickly reveals, “Elites who, despite their power, wealth, or influence, are prone to making serious errors when discussing science and other technical matters.”

Actually, Nocera didn’t try to make that case.  He never detailed the supposed benefits of the pipeline, and he called concerns about environmental risks posed by expansion of the tar sands “ludicrous.”

Nocera continues:

Yes, let’s. In particular, let’s focus on two issues that have become the cornerstone of the opposition to Keystone. The first is that the crude from the tar sands is, in Redford’s words, “the dirtiest oil on the planet” — so dirty, in fact, that it will dramatically increase greenhouse gas emissions and greatly exacerbate the growing threat of global warming.

There is no question that oil from the tar sands will increase greenhouse gases. But by how much? According to a study by IHS Cera, a leading energy research firm, the oil from the tar sands emits only 6 percent more greenhouse gases than other, lighter forms of oil. (Environmental groups have tried to poke holes in the study, but even they don’t come up with the kind of increase that would doom the planet.)

No and no.

First, the IHS Cera analysis isn’t transparent, and therefore it isn’t very useful.  It isn’t just enviros who have issues with it.   I interviewed one of the country’s foremost authorities on comparative lifecycle GHG analyses of the tar sands, Adam Brandt.  He is in Stanford’s Department of Energy Resources Engineering, and author of the December 2011 study, “Variability and Uncertainty in Life Cycle Assessment Models for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Canadian Oil Sands Production.”

I asked him why IHS Cera was on the low side of most other analyses and what he thought was the best range to use.  He said, “I am not sure of exactly what CERA did in their study” and “I have a hard time commenting on numbers that CERA derives, because I can’t see what they did.”  He says:

There is a lot of variability depending on the oil sands project in question.  I think a reasonable range for the existing oil sands projects is a 5%-30% increase over the California baseline value.  When speaking to reporters, I cite a baseline industry-average increase of 10-15% compared to the California baseline.

Second, again, to avoid catastrophic global warming we need to leave the majority of hydrocarbons in the ground — and the overwhelming majority of unconventional fossil fuels in the ground.  The tar sands is at the top of the list of unconventional fossil fuels that need to be left in the ground, particularly if you’re talking the kind of exploitation needed to actually have any impact whatsoever on U.S. energy security — see Hansen slams Keystone XL Pipeline: “Exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts.”

X-axis is the range of potential resource in billions of barrels. Y-axis is grams of Carbon per MegaJoule of final fuel.  [Graph source: Farrell and Brandt, “Risks of the oil transition,” 2006.]

Nocera continues:

What’s more, there is plenty of oil being produced today with the same greenhouse gas consequences as the oil from the tar sands. As Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says, “The argument you hear is that because it increases greenhouse gas emissions, we shouldn’t tolerate it.  Well, so do the lights in my house.  You have to be discriminating.”


That may be the lamest analogy in the history of energy and climate.  Nocera is actually analogizing the GHG emissions increase from 900,000 barrels a day of dirty tar sands oil with flicking on the lights in your house!  And remember, Nocera wants a lot more oil than that.

How bad is this analogy?  Many people choose to get their  electricity from renewable sources — so for them turning on the lights don’t even increase GHGs.  The point is people don’t have any choice about  the dirty tar sands oil — but Obama does.

Nocera continues:

The second argument is that the tar sands oil won’t help the United States because it is all headed for export. This is perhaps the silliest argument of all. Right now, most of the big refineries on the Gulf Coast export around 20 percent of their refined product. Why? Because every barrel of crude oil is converted partly to diesel and partly to gasoline — and the rest of the world is far more reliant on diesel fuel than we are. The gasoline remains in the United States. Keystone wouldn’t change that equation one bit. Normally, one wouldn’t have to point out that exporting high-value products is good for the country. But, of course, improving our trade balance is irrelevant when you’re facing the apocalypse.

Actually, it isn’t a silly argument because Nocera titled his piece “The Politics of Keystone.” Exporting this oil is a political killer.  But in any case, Nocera is willing to hand wave away all the environmental arguments because Keystone would enrich U.S. refiners?

He continues:

You want to know another little secret about the tar sands? It’s already coming here, thanks to existing pipelines — and it is already doing us a great deal of good. The influx of Canadian oil is partly why our imports from OPEC are at their lowest level in nearly a decade. And because the crude from Canada is selling at a steep discount to Saudi Arabian crude, it is stabilizing the price at the pump.

Another handwaving argument.  Let’s see if Nocera can find a study that says 900,000 barrels of tar sand oil will lower US oil prices over the long term.  Good luck.

Consider an analogous case, the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2009 report, “Impact of Limitations on Access to Oil and Natural Gas Resources in the Federal Outer Continental Shelf.” The EIA  analyzed the difference between restrictions to offshore drilling and full offshore drilling, which means about half a million barrels of oil a day more in U.S. oil production in the 2020s and beyond.  In 2030, US gasoline prices would be three cents a gallon lower.  Woohoo!

Somewhat to my surprise, the most reasoned Keystone opponent I spoke to this week was Bill McKibben, who led the protests against it. Although the tar sands ranks as “the second biggest pool of carbon in the world,” he told me, “Keystone, by itself, won’t make or break the environment.”

Rather, he said, he and other environmentalists had decided to draw this particular line in the sand because stopping Keystone would help accelerate what he described as the difficult transition from a fossil fuel economy to a new, brighter world based on renewable sources of energy. “The most sensible way to go about dealing with global warming is one pipeline at a time,” he said. “These kinds of fights are extremely important because they are the way the message gets out that we need to change.”

You won’t be surprised to learn this isn’t what McKibben was saying.  McKibben writes me:

What I said, in fact, was ‘the most sensible way to about dealing with global warming is not one pipeline at a time.’ And of course that’s true–it would make the most sense to have a real policy that put a stiff price on carbon. But since that’s not happening at the moment, despite our best efforts, we’re in a constant fight to try and keep carbon in the ground wherever we can.  The tar sands are key for the reason we’ve said from the start: there’s so much carbon in there that if you tap it heavily it’s ‘game over for the climate’ no matter what else you do.

The other thing that i talked with him about but failed to get across was that the biggest danger was not the extra carbon in tar sands oil but the sheer scale of the new deposit they’re now opening up. He seems to have dropped his earlier insistence that they’d get it to Asia somehow anyway: I think he heard from people about the opposition to the Gateway pipeline.   He’s taking what I think he conceives of as a ‘realist’ stance, from someone immersed in the world of business and diplomacy. What i tried and failed to explain to him is that there’s a deeper kind of realism that comes from physics and chemistry, a kind of realphysics that will trump realpolitik.

Nocera ends his piece.

Maybe — just maybe — stopping the Keystone pipeline would be worth it if it really was going to change our behavior and help usher in the age of renewable energy. It would, indeed, be worth turning our backs on oil that we badly need and that is already making our country more secure and prosperous.

But let’s be honest. It’s not going to change anyone’s behavior. If Keystone is ultimately blocked, the far more likely result is that everyone who opposed it will get to feel good about themselves while still commuting to work, alone, in their S.U.V.’s.

Again, it’s clever but specious to turn this into an issue about changing our behavior.  We need to leave most of the fossil fuels in the ground and that should start with the tar sands.

McKibben writes:

The last paragraph is very unfair. ‘Everyone’ opposed to keystone is not commuting to work alone in their SUV; the people I’ve met in the course of this fight are the most spirited, engaged, sincere and lovely bunch of people I can imagine.

But you know, you could add one more thing from me please:  “Nocera at least heard the criticism of his column and circled back for another look. He didn’t reverse what he said, but he did soften his tone. And that’s good. This is complicated stuff if you’re new to it, the power of the status quo is strong, and over time our leading journalists are starting to figure it out. It wouldn’t surprise me if eventually he ended up where the New York Times editorial page arrived many months ago: understanding that Keystone really was an important part of the fight for a working planet.”

Hear!  Hear!

27 Responses to Joe Nocera Is Still Wrong and “Very Unfair” About the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline. McKibben, Hansen and I Explain Why.

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Nice rebuttal, thanks to you and Bill, but I’m not sure that Nocera’s bad reporting derives from ignorance or stupidity.

    Nocera, like fellow Keystone pipeline supporter Revkin, is useful to New York Times advertisers, who want to see the global warming “debate” continued. They will leave it to Krugman, Friedman, and lightly read editorials to placate their fact based readership.

    Nocero and Revkin have learned what pleases their bosses, and are writing accordingly. Revkin uses somewhat different justifications for tar sands oil, as he does for fracked gas, but the message to readers is the same: Relax. Don’t worry about the thermostat. Buy a nice car, and take a plane trip to the South Pacific if you feel like it. The science is still being debated. “Science writer” John Tierney is on the same program. Their often atrocious columns cannot derive from ignorance, but are spawned from greed and complacency, with clucking sounds from their bosses, including the truth-optional Public Editor.

    Memo to the Sulzbergers: You are not only endangering our future, you are soiling the reputation of the one newspaper that people have counted on for over 150 years. The ultimate result of your disgraceful behavior will be abandonment of the Times, as soon as a more nimble and fact based organ is developed to replace it.

  2. M Tucker says:

    Joe, this is a very interesting piece but I am wondering what you meant when you said, “Actually, it isn’t a silly argument because Nocera titled his piece “The Politics of Keystone.” Exporting this oil is a political killer.”

    A political killer for whom? The President? Maybe but I don’t think getting President Obama reelected is a concern of Nocera.

  3. Jeff H says:

    Zero Offense, Very Weak Defense, and The Clock

    I read the two Nocera pieces, of course, and I’ve read the responses here. The responses here are helpful, of course, to the audiences here, but those audiences are much, much smaller than the audience Nocera enjoys.

    Be that as it may, the comment I’m moved to write today — prompted by reading some of the comments in the present post, and by considering “where things stand” on a broader level — is this:

    We have a zero offense and a very, very weak defense. And the clock is ticking.

    Is that comment concrete enough? Does anyone disagree with it, seriously?

    Obama is missing in action on climate change: he barely even talks about it. Our major events, when they occur, are always on “defense”. We are still very much in the mode of trying to slow down the increase in the damage that we’re (humankind) is doing. And even in that mode, we (apparently) find ourselves being understanding, accommodating, polite, and so forth when a long-time columnist who SHOULD get it by now prints stuff that is deeply problematic and that makes not one, but numerous, basic flaws in fact and reasoning.

    Maybe someday he’ll (Nocera) get it? When I read stuff like that, I have serious doubts about whether WE — our leaders — get it! Again, the clock is ticking, our offense is terrible, and even our defense is weak. (Even in the cases in which our defense “holds” for one set of downs, somehow our offense never actually gets the ball: it punts on first down, and it’s back to intermittent and insufficient defense again.)

    I think we are (or at least seem to be) just as much in “denial” about some things as the uninformed climate-change deniers are about the reality of climate change (that is, those folks who aren’t purposefully in denial and trying to mislead others). We embrace the science, of course, but we seem to be in denial about the dramatic (and obvious) need for a very substantial change in our own approaches.

    Is this a topic “not to be discussed”, or will we someday begin to discuss it?

    To be clear, I do appreciate and applaud the idea of responding, here, to Nocera’s poor column and silly reasoning. But the overall situation, the fact of Nocera’s two columns, and some of the comments included in the response here (the post), prompt me to point out the larger picture, which is this: We have zero offense, a weak defense, and the clock ticks. Any leader and coach should be able to see this. And any leader and coach would realize the urgent need for a major change in approach.



  4. Andy says:

    Nocera’s wrong. The gasoline doesn’t all stay in the house. Gulf Coast refineries are exporting more and more gasoline.

  5. Well, zero offense and all, we’re two hours into a huge blitz around Keystone. Every environmental group is joining hands to make it work (EDF to RAN) and MoveOn, Credo, Change.Org, and Democracy for America, among others joining in across the progressive spectrum. So, help!

  6. Raul M. says:

    Don’t know that it could just be called hand waving.
    Years ago it was called mutiny when someone asked for a clearer understanding of an issue only to resort to might makes right. Good point that earth systems don’t just do what someone might like.

  7. Jeff H says:

    Bill, I had just signed the petition, and I applaud that effort and participate in as many events in-person as I can. But I think this is another defensive move, of course — a necessary one, but defensive nonetheless. We need to build a real offense, quick, and we either need to get Obama to be ON that offense and genuinely leading, energetically, or we need to get someone else into office to go on offense. I don’t see anything happening along those lines, in the movement. Nor do I see that being discussed anywhere: it seems to be the topic that shall not be discussed? In this vital year, all I’m hearing about, and seeing, is more of the same. It would help a great deal, actually, if someone were to actually acknowledge this reality, which would open the door to thinking differently and to badly-needed changes in approach.

    I applaud the efforts, but I think they need rethinking. Yes?



  8. Raul M. says:

    Gee, that guffaw I did about being so meticulous about home sanitization removing any influence of nature as being nieve to the forces of nature is only not in large circulation due to lack of standing rather than lack of rational exposition.
    You see, if he were to treat his kitchen the way he treats the world, he might only drop the leavings from the plat on the floor and the dishrag used to wipe the food off that plate.
    Why just yesterday….
    That child, I aware (not nice to aware) …
    So if the young and those who are concerned with the young are comfortable enough so those in position to view will still like them and the revolution doesn’t start, then weather might change enough so that so many more won’t have the acceptable level of comfort required for the ones in position to observe likeness, hens the popular belief that gated communities and minimum wage guards will come to the rescue.
    Now isn’t that just a crock of worm castings never to be. Don’t you think there is a better was to get elec. Than using up all the water that he would have used to do the dishes.

  9. Sasparilla says:

    Thank you for a wonderful analysis and response Joe.

    That graphic at the top really gets the point across of the danger we’re going full speed ahead into (from a commercial development standpoint) – those two unconventional sources (oil and gas) are so massive compared to conventional sources we were sweating about getting away from…I knew they were big, but I didn’t know they were that big – the fact that both the unconventional oil and gas resources are being successfully commercially developed is extremely disturbing due to the long term consequences.

    Jeff H. you’re right – we went from an expectation of finally seeing serious action a couple of years ago to figuring out we’d been truly sold out by our leader (1st two tar sands pipelines etc.) and now the best we can shoot for is whether we can loose slower. To stop things soon enough to not loose it all we need to be doing alot better than that – but it seems like trying to loose slower is about as good as it gets for the time being (at least here in the US for the foreseeable future). Options outside of protesting and turning the political wheel from the public level don’t seem to be realistic or would end up being counterproductive.

  10. Lou Grinzo says:

    The average person in the US has precisely three forms of leverage that are, as of today, grossly underutilized:

    1. Coordinated, mass economic boycotts. I know, just mentioning this option turns off a lot of people, and curiously enough many of them are furious about what one corporation or another is doing. But I guarantee that if a coordinated effort said to company XYZ: “Change how you produce/source your products, or we’re not buying”, and then backs it up, they will become the most powerful and feared entity in the economy overnight. Nothing, and I mean not one bloody thing, would scare corporations more.

    2. Voting for the right policies and against the wrong ones.

    3. Using social media to organize and publicize the above efforts. This is required for coordination purposes, obviously, but it also sends a powerful message to corporations that when they see their sales dip there is no doubt at all why it is happening. The effort has to remove all ability by the CEOs and board members to delude themselves into thinking the poor sales were anything but angry consumers expressing their collective wishes about a detail that the corporations can change.

    We need an enviro version of DailyKos. Yes, people on DK talk a lot about climate change and related issues, but I’m talking about something with a much tighter focus and an explicit mission statement to leverage buying patterns to achieve specific goals.

    No one has to chain him/herself to a coal truck or get arrested. In fact, large corporations don’t mind those actions, as they make the greenies look like extremists that the mainstream will then shun, along with our cause. The worst nightmare for corporations is very low barriers to entry for effective political activism by the mainstream consumer and voter. The tools are there; we just need to figure out how to use them.

  11. Sandra Maliga says:

    Would like to see carbon reduction but want the discussion to include our desperate global dependence on fossil fuels.
    Conserving energy must come first.

  12. Ben Lieberman says:

    I hope Nocera starts to recognize that just burning all high carbon fossil fuel is no way to curb global warming. The cheap shots in the second column about SUVS and in the first column about giddy environmentalists suggests that he has a real chip on his shoulder about anyone who is trying to protect the planet’s environment.

  13. Mark Shapiro says:


    More effective than boycotts: publicize the truths about the leaders of the most destructive organizations: Murdoch, the Koch brothers, coal and oil CEOs.

    Corporations are all muscle (cash, PR, brand loyalty) and zero feelings. CEOs don’t have those protections. Tell people the truth about the destructive leaders. It resonates.

  14. Mark Shapiro says:

    Yes, Nocera, Revkin, and all journalists know where there bread is buttered. But there’s a big, simple human element, too. These guys get to meet the wealthiest, most powerful people on the planet. They ooze power, wealth, and prestige. It is seductive — and intimidating.

    The easiest path by far is to fawn. It happens. You can feel it in Nocera’s 5/31/2008 piece that Joe links to above.

    Nocera at least is listening. We have to keep hammering, and our Joe Romm lays out the case. We keep pushing, and let’s remember the forces we are up against. They are huge.

  15. Sasparilla says:

    Very well said Mike Roddy.

  16. Sasparilla says:

    Excellent points M. Shapiro, keeping things in perspective is required and not so easy to do.

  17. Sasparilla says:

    Lou you’re totally right on this, particularly #3 social media. Great insights here. We just watched social media change all those governments in the Middle East.

  18. Joe Doaks says:

    What do you have in mind? Given the resource imbalance between us and them, what sort of offense could we put up? How could we improve our defense?

  19. David Lewis says:

    Hansen believes no one is going to be able to do anything about the conventional oil that is left. He usually cites two reasons: we are too committed to using it, and the countries where most of what’s left is, Russia and the petrostates of the Middle East, cannot be stopped from producing and selling it all. He doesn’t say if any more of this conventional oil is used its “game over”. He’s granting a “free pass” into the atmosphere for CO2 emitted as conventional oil is used. Once he’s granted that, given that he believes there is too much CO2 in the atmosphere already, he has to condemn any further coal and unconventional oil and gas use in the harshest possible terms.

    He seems to think it would be possible to arouse the population of North America to the point people would stop using the fossil resources of this continent except for what’s left of North American conventional oil and gas, while this same aroused North American population would stand by and allow the Saudis and the rest of the oil barons of the Middle East and Russia to do whatever they please with their great reserves of fossil fuels.

    He might be right, maybe it will be possible to sell the North American population on that idea.

    With all due respect to Hansen, I find myself thinking that its “game over” if civilization cannot find its way to a global agreement to phasing out GHG emissions by imposing a price on carbon high enough to succeed. In the framework of a high carbon price all fossil fuels will either be used in ways the resulting CO2 is not allowed to enter the atmosphere, or they won’t be used at all.

    I admire and love Hansen. He inspired me to come out of years of despair to look for new possibilities for climate action never mind how late the hour is. He continues coming up with new ideas on how to get through to people. I hope people listen to him.

  20. Alex Carlin says:

    Jeff, kudos to you for making a fantastic point. The main thing we need is an offensive game plan – with a positive catchy call to a specific do-able action to change very fast from carbon energy to non-carbon energy. My proposal for this is on – Lets propose more such game plans. Anybody got one?

  21. PJMD says:

    McKibben says above, “it would make the most sense to have a real policy that put a stiff price on carbon.” RIGHT!

    Look, we are not going to be able to alter the influence of the most powerful industry in the history civilization. No corporation will allow trillions of dollars of revenue to sit untapped. But what is the most powerful substance on the planet? Hint: neither oil nor plutonium. It’s MONEY. If we change the MONEY the whole system will change.

    Just like the climate system is sensitive to small forcings, putting a price on carbon emissions could be the magic bullet that tilts the energy economy in the right direction.

    A progressively rising carbon tax, with the proceeds returned in equal shares to US households in order to offset their rising energy costs and keep people hooked to their monthly or yearly GREEN CHECKs would have immediate impact. Planners would overnight grasp the fact that renewables will soon be cheaper than dirty energy, investment will shift, economies of scale will bloom, pent up capital will flow into “the next big thing,” politicians will jump to the head of the parade and the long awaited bubble in clean investment will start to expand.

    While the KXL battle is surely worth fighting (I was arrested), let’s keep our eyes on the prize: the SYSTEM must change. Change the MONEY flow and start Industrial Revolution V. 2.0! It’s time for all the organizations concerned about climate change to get behind Carbon Fee and Rebate. Check out Rep. Pete Stark’s Save Our Climate Act and follow it at

  22. David Lewis says:

    It is interesting to see Nocera and McKibben interact with each other in print.

    Nocera: “the most reasoned Keystone opponent I spoke to this week was Bill McKibben”.

    McKibben: “Nocera at least heard the criticism of his column and circled back for another look.”

    Nocera: “Maybe – just maybe – stopping the Keystone pipeline would be worth it if it really was going to change our behavior…”.

    McKibben: “What I tried and failed to explain to him is that there’s a deeper kind of realism that comes from physics and chemistry, a king of realphysics that will trump realpolitik”.

    Nocera: “But let’s be honest. It’s not going to change…”

    It may be that America is going through something like the fall of Rome on fast forward and there’s nothing anyone is going to do about it. But I come away from seeing this exchange between Hansen and McKibben on the one hand and Nocera on the other feeling more clearly in favor of Hansen and McKibben. At least they are flying the flag declaring change is possible. All the ignorati seem to have to say is party on until more sh*t hits the fan.

  23. Tom King says:

    I’ve been a loyal daily reader of the NYT for about 15 years. This article was the final straw and has lead me to cancel that subscription. Last month, I cancelled my relationship with HuffPost because I felt they were trying to promote the controversy of Climate Change rather than its eventuality. I cancelled my relationship with BBC about 4 years ago because they too have moved in the wrong direction. I cancelled my subscription to Economist Magazine in 1999 when they predicted that oil might fall below 10 dollars a barrel.
    I’ve never been a reader of Forbes, but I have learned that they too have published science denial articles and will be careful to avoid all interaction with their magazine. It is time for us to walk away from offensive media in the same way we walked away from mainstream tv over the last decade.

  24. Chase says:

    I appreciate the effort here, but I think Nocera’s pieces demand a clearer response.

    The graphs and text conflate two distinct questions: (1) how much energy is in the reservoir, and (2) how carbon-intensive is the energy in the reservoir.

    Figure 1 does not distinguish. Figure 2 seems to contradict the 10% to 15% number given in the text.

    Neither graph is explained adequately for a reader to understand the data.

    This is intended as constructive criticism. I hope that ClimateProgress (or somebody!) can put up a post that is sufficiently clear and substantive to put the ball back in Nocera’s court. If this post is the last word then I would expect him to simply ignore it.

  25. Joe Romm says:

    I think the response is more than enough. Figure 2 answer the your questions. Same analyst did both number and figure, but there is no contradiction. They covers slightly different things and the figure is a refinement specifically for California refineries.

    The fact that Nocera actually responded to a blog that has under 1/10th his readership is more than I could’ve expected.

  26. Chase says:

    OK fine. I’ll go read the Farrell and Brandt reference then. Regarding Fig 2, I don’t get why some bars appear to be stacked and some aren’t. It is not clear if the y-axis is a “total” or a “per megajoule” emissions or both. If it is just the height/thickness of the bars that convey carbon-intensity (“per megajoule”), then I observe that the “tar sands” bar is much more than 10%-15% thicker than “conventional oil”. Or does the 10-15% take EOR as the baseline? The post doesn’t explain “California Baseline”…

    Nocera shoots from the hip, but I think he cares about truth. It doesn’t surprise me that he would engage the exchange. But it’s too soon to declare victory.

    Thanks for what you do. Really, I’m trying to help. I’m probably not the only one who doesn’t get the graphs. If Keystone is “game over” then it’s worth getting it right.